A unique Fifa World Cup comes to a climax on Sunday in the desert heat of Qatar, as Argentina take on France for the greatest prize in football.
It’s a monumental match befitting the occasion, too, as Lionel Messi continues his Indian Summer on the international stage against spring chicken superstar Kylian Mbappe.
The justified swirl of off-field controversy notwithstanding, few can deny that 2022 has delivered on the field – and there’s still time for one final twist.
World Cup predictions and fixtures for 18 December
*All kick off times are in Central Africa Time.
Final: Argentina vs France – 17.00
The 2022 Fifa World Cup final on Sunday sees an almighty collision between Argentina and France, who face off for the most coveted trophy in the sport.
It’s a contest for football fans around the planet as South America square up to Europe.
Better still, it’s a battle between soccer legend Lionel Messi and young pretender Kylian Mbappe, in a fixture where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Messi has, at the age of 35, had the tournament of his life, thrusting himself right up there in the unanswerable ‘who’s better’ competition with Argentinian great Diego Maradona.
The South American idol captained his side to their last World Cup triumph in 1986 – and the fervor is building for the Barcelona legend to truly emerge from his shadow, despite achieving everything else and then some in the game already.
It’s easy to forget that if it isn’t to be Messi’s day, it would be a second global title at the tender age of 23 for Mbappe.
He has sparked into life at several moments during the tournament so far in an intriguing, at times puzzling French team, coached by 1998 winner Didier Deschamps.
Les Bleus were pushed hard by underdogs Morocco in Wednesday night’s second semi-final, with goals from Theo Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani proving enough to see them into the final for the fourth time.
They had an even tougher time of it in the quarters as they edged out an impressive England.
Olivier Giroud, who has surpassed Thierry Henry as his country’s leading goalscorer in this competition, stooped at the near post to head in the winner, after Aurelien Tchouameni’s opener had been cancelled out by a Harry Kane penalty.
That’s not the full story either, as Hugo Lloris watched his Tottenham team-mate spoon a late second spot kick over the bar in dramatic fashion to secure French progress.
Poland had been no match for them in the Round of 16 at week earlier, after they had cruised through the group stage thanks to wins over Australia and Denmark.
Defeat to Tunisia came largely thanks to a near-entirely rotated team and, as events that have followed should prove, can be discounted by everything except the record books.
Argentina had a surprisingly straightforward time of it in reaching their sixth showpiece final.
Messi was a sprite all night against 2018 finalists Croatia, ghosting in and out at will to blow apart their hopes of a Russia rematch with France four years ago.
The little maestro scored yet again from the penalty spot to opening the game up against the battling Europeans, before he turned on the style in service of Julian Alvarez.
First a header to set the youngster away, with his fresh legs bundling him through an unusually hapless Croatian defence before prodding past Dominik Livakovic for a virtuoso goal worthy of his side’s elder statesman.
But that had nothing on Messi’s second assist.
He broke, drove forward, twisted, turned and tangled Josko Gvardiol into several knots before picking out Alvarez for a finish that rendered the rest of the last four clash a walk in the desert oasis.
It had been a different story entirely in their quarter-final tie with old foes the Netherlands, who cancelled out a Nahuel Molina opener and a Messi penalty at the death to force extra time and then penalties.
Only after an unexpected slog did they triumph 4-3 on spot kicks, having eased past Australia in the first knockout round.
The group stage couldn’t have begun any worse, either, as they slumped to defeat against Saudi Arabia.
Victories over first Mexico then Poland, however, helped them create the rhythm that has seen them go all the way to the final.
And precious few will recall those early travails if Messi can go on to cap not just a wonderful tournament, but one of the most spectacular football careers of all time.